Public Service Commissioner provides advice on Pharmac chair Steve Maharey after political comments, has been asked to write to chairs about impartiality rules

The Public Service Commissioner has provided advice to Andrew Little, the Minister for the Public Service, about comments Pharmac chair Steve Maharey made in newspaper columns.

He wouldn't say what that advice was as it is under "active consideration" by the minister. But he will release it publicly at a later time, possibly later on Wednesday.

"Legislation does require due process here, that is an obligation on me and I would not be meeting that obligation [by discussing the advice now]. I will release the advice publicly. It will be a matter of public record."

National has called for Maharey to resign after it emerged he made political comments in a series of newspaper columns. That's despite public servants needing to remain politically impartial.

Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall, who is responsible for Maharey as Pharmac chair, on Tuesday said he had offered up his resignation, but she retained confidence in him and was waiting on advice from the Public Service Commission. 

Speaking to a Select Committee on Wednesday morning, Public Service Commissioner Peter Hughes said Maharey contacted him on Saturday morning "to alert me to the fact of the columns".

"He indicated that he was not wanting to cause any difficulties and that he would modify his approach going forward," Hughes told MPs on the Governance and Administration Committee.

Maharey told Hughes that he would then speak to ministers responsible for him as the chair of Pharmac and ACC. 

Hughes said he had had no other Crown entities chairs or board members contact him.

He said he is "very confident" public servants are aware of neutrality requirements. Little has asked him to contact board chairs and reiterate those requirements.

Hughes said it's not his role to do real-time monitoring of chairs' public comments.

Comments by Ruth Dyson, the former Labour MP and now deputy chair of the Earthquake Commission and Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ), have not been raised with him, he said. 

It's been noted that Dyson has shared several political tweets since being in the roles, including criticism of a speech by National leader Christopher Luxon at Waitangi.

"I will check when I go back whether any of my officials are aware of that," Hughes said. 

He told National's public service spokesperson Simeon Brown, who was questioning Hughes, to write to him about Dyson's comments if they concerned him.

Dyson subsequently appeared before the same Select Committee in her FENZ role. 

She said she will be considering her social media content.

"I'm prepared to review all my social media engagement and reflect on whether it meets the standard. I haven't done that yet."

The controversy around Maharey follows the sacking Te Whatu Ora chair Rob Campbell last week, after he attacked the National Party on social media. 

The Government says the difference in Maharey's case is that he has accepted an issue with his actions whereas Campbell stood by his comments.

"In terms of with Mr Campbell, he called the Leader of the Opposition stupid and he implied his policies were racist," said Dr Verrall. "While he apologised to me, he then doubled down on those criticisms in the press. Mr Maharey has reached out and been contrite."

In his newspaper columns, Maharey compared National to the US Republican Party, said it had never been "the party of change" and that Luxon's brand rests on him being "a good manager (of an airline)". 

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told AM on Tuesday morning that Maharey's comments were "clearly not politically neutral" and that his office had heard from the public servant on Monday.

"He's indicated that he acknowledges that they're not impartial, the way that we would expect of a Crown entity chair. He's apologised for those and he's also indicated that he's not going to be writing that column in the future."

Campbell was sacked as both the Te Whatu Ora and Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) chair last week after taking aim at National's Three Waters policy on Linkedin. 

That's despite board members of Crown entities being subject to a code of conduct saying they must be politically impartial. 

"We act in a politically impartial manner. Irrespective of our political interests, we conduct ourselves in a way that enables us to act effectively under current and future governments," the code of conduct says. 

"We do not make political statements or engage in political activity in relation to the functions of the Crown entity.

"When acting in our private capacity, we avoid any political activity that could jeopardise our ability to perform our role or which could erode the public's trust in the entity. We discuss with the Chair any proposal to make political comment or to undertake any significant political activity."

In his advice to Verrall about Campbell, Hughes said his comments were "a breach of the Code and also demonstrate a failure to uphold the public service principle of political neutrality".

After his sacking, Campbell hasn't backed down. He told Newshub he had "no regret" and believed he made the comments in a private capacity that didn't erode the trust people could have in him as the chair.